Authors: Charles Frazier
Tags: #Fiction, #Literary, #Thrillers, #General, #Historical
—What? Stubblefield said, across the boomerang Formica.
—Nothing. I can’t dance anymore. I used to be good at it, but not anymore.
—We don’t have to dance.
—It’s okay. We can try again later. Be back in a minute, Luce said.
She got up and walked across the room, and as she passed the bar, a man brushed the back of his hand against her ass. Accidental, but not. Luce didn’t make eye contact, just kept walking, not feeling him drop his cigarette and follow her until it was too late. As she opened the door to the ladies’ and stepped in, the man put his foot out to stop it. He gripped her shoulder and turned her around.
His face right in hers and his breath all Scotched up, Bud said, Luce, why’s that boyfriend of yours been asking around about me?
Luce didn’t know what he was talking about, but one look at him and she knew who he was. Bud still blinked from the bright light over the bathroom sink, and also his surprise that she wasn’t cowering in fear but shouting right in his face. So when she let up from her first outburst, he seemed confused with her reasoning. But he got the drift, which had to do with him being a murderer. Which took him a few seconds to begin acting cool about.
He said, Pretty girl, you’re free to have an opinion, but the court saw it my way and let me go. And now I’m here.
—You were born guilty, and we both know you killed my sister, and the children saw you do it. You did something to them, too.
Luce watched his focus fade, and a moment where he started to get twitchy. Then, like an actor momentarily losing the thread of his character and suddenly grasping it back, he got confident again. He said, Now, why do you want to get going in that direction? Listening to those little bastards’ lies.
—They can’t hardly talk.
—Big surprise. I never knew the natural daddy, but their mama was not the sharpest knife in the drawer. So, what do you expect?
—What I don’t know is why anybody would marry you. But I know Lily was sweet and trusting, and I’m not. I can figure the things you did by how they act.
—You’re letting your private imagination run wild in bad directions. But go ahead on and make up whatever mean stories get you fired up. Nothing to do with me.
Just angry, not really thinking or planning, Luce said, I’m going to get back at you.
—Back at me? Bud said. What does that mean?
—What do you think?
—Well, let’s see. Could mean several things, such as kill me.
—You’d have it coming.
—Now, I’m no lawyer, but you probably crossed the line into conveying threats. Which is how they’ll put it when I go to a magistrate to get a restraining order. Probably be your daddy to serve it.
Luce was caught wrong-footed by the unexpected threat of law and her father against her, and couldn’t come up with anything to say.
Bud went riffing forward without hardly drawing breath. He said, And by the way, pretty girl, who are you to threaten me? You’re not such hot shit around here anymore. Used to be a cheerleader way long time ago. Which I’ve done some imagining about. A lot more wholesome than whatever trash you’ve made up about me. Just saddle shoes and bobby sox and pleated skirts. Wool sweaters with the name of the team animal spelled out across the titties. Red underpants for when you turned cartwheels in front of the crowd. Back here in the sticks, a cheerleader must be about like being a movie star for a couple of years. But then what? All downhill from there. Now you’re living up yonder at the ass end of nowhere, as you hillbillies say. In that old ruin by the lake. All by yourself, except for those retard kids. Real dark lonesome nights, way down that rough dirt road.
Luce’s breathing went shallow and quick. She realized her mouth was partly open. She closed it and drew a breath from deep down and said, How do you know where I live? What I wore back then? How do you know anything about me?
—Public knowledge. Which is simply a bullshit mix of facts and opinions. Not threats. And they can’t do anything to you in this country for stating facts and opinions. Not yet.
—You burned the uniform, didn’t you? Luce said. You’ve been where I live.
—Calm down. All I did was look through some yellow newspapers at the library. You were a tight little piece in those old Friday night pictures.
A SONG PASSED BY
and Stubblefield got up and drifted toward the bar looking for Luce. When he got to the back hall, a man stood in the door to the ladies’, and Stubblefield saw the top of Luce’s hair over his shoulder.
—What the hell? Stubblefield said.
Bud turned and grabbed Stubblefield by the front of his shirt and wheeled and shoved him hard inside. The mirror broke. Then all three of them were there with the door closed. Bud clicked the lock behind him.
In the cramped space, Luce and Stubblefield crowded up against the toilet. One bare bulb over the sink, its light fragmented by the spider-webbed mirror. A machine for sanitary napkins to match the rubber machine screwed to the same stud on the other side of the wall, in the men’s. A loop of cotton toweling hanging from a white dispenser.
—It’s Johnson, Luce said to Stubblefield.
Bud squared his shoulders against Stubblefield and studied him and said, So you’re the asswipe asking about me?
Stubblefield said, I was checking rumors.
Bud shook his head sorrowfully. Fuck me twice, he said. Makes me feel dirty that my business is anything of yours.
Stubblefield said, I wanted to know what you’re doing here.
—Well, as the philosophers say, everybody’s got to be somewhere. And even Sister Luce agrees I’m free to live wherever I want to.
—What is it you’re after? Luce said.
—I don’t guess you happen to have any money squirreled away in a clever place? Bud said. You don’t live like you do. But I heard your boyfriend might have some.
—So is that it?
—Be way simpler if it was. I’m just after what’s mine.
—The children, then? Luce said.
Bud made an incredulous expression. He turned to Stubblefield and said, She’s sure pretty, but if she’s as big a whore and pain in the ass as her sister, and even half as ignorant, you have my tenderest sympathies.
Stubblefield swung a misconceived roundhouse toward Bud’s mouth. It took a great deal of time to come around, plenty enough for Bud to cock his head to the side so that Stubblefield’s fist barely glanced off the brow and dwindled most of its energy into nothing.
By the time Stubblefield collected himself, Bud had reached into the cuff of his railroad boot. He came out flashing a black-and-silver switchblade with little imitation quillons like on a sword. He tripped the button, and the blade sprang from the handle into life. It had a blood gutter running partway down its cheap chrome length, and it cast jagged reflections from its angled faces.
Bud sank into a knife-fighter crouch and his eyes got all concentrated. He said, Legal tip. Looks bad in court when you throw the first fist. Way it stands, you brought on what happens next.
Stubblefield raised his arms to shoulder level and pushed out flat palms in a gesture like a traffic cop whoaing up approaching cars. Bud flicked the blade and cut the palm of the left hand into the meat.
Bud danced in place, three little steps like a boxer, and watched Stubblefield’s face blanch and his hand start bleeding down his arm. Luce had never screamed in her life, and she didn’t scream now.
Dark blood splattered on the dingy white linoleum near the base of the white toilet. Stubblefield tried to swing another blow, but Bud smacked it away with his empty hand. Stubblefield bent double and grabbed his cut hand with his good hand and pressed them both between his knees. His face was turning the color of the linoleum.
Bud stood straight and dismissed Stubblefield without further comment, like his pain and fear didn’t factor at all. He looked at Luce and slowly wiped the blade’s two faces on the thigh of his jeans and pressed the button with his thumb to release the spring and folded the blade slowly back into place with the forefinger of his left hand. Very fast he said, You better figure this out before somebody gets hurt. I don’t give two shits about your whore sister’s bastards. I’m glad to be shut of them. All they ever did was gag up dinner or crap their britches at bad times and keep me from getting up on her whenever I wanted, which was all she was good for.
—You asshole, she kept you in groceries, Luce said.
—Stupid bitch thinks I won’t cut her too, Bud said, in the direction of Stubblefield. Y’all need to go on about your own lives and leave me alone. And if you take this to the law, I’m really going to bear down on you heavy. This right here is nothing. I wasn’t trying to go deep. He’ll heal.
—But why are you here? Luce said to his back as he went out the door.
Bud turned back around. He said, We were talking about facts and opinions. Here comes another one. Way I see it, up there by the lake, if somebody was to holler, nobody would hear it.
It took a pretty major effort not to look off, but Luce kept her eyes straight at Bud’s and said all in a rush, You ever come around my place and those kids, I
kill you. And you can go straight to Lit with that, and I’ll own it under oath.
Bud grinned and said, Correct me if I am wrong, but besides being the word for scream, holler’s also local talk for a sort of narrow valley, ain’t it?
He slammed the door shut behind him.
Stubblefield was still bent around his wound. Blood dripping into a pool at his feet. Luce straightened him up and made him hold his cut hand under the faucet. Somebody started to come in the door, but Luce put out her foot and blocked it.
—Later, she said, and flipped the lock.
She pulled at the roll of towels, but it was at the end. All the used droop looked grubby. She lifted her skirt and stepped out of her half-slip underneath. It was the color and sheen of mercury with lace at the hem, and she didn’t even try to rip it into strips of bandage. She wound the whole thing tight as she could around Stubblefield’s hand. They went out the back door, the way to the stables in the day of horses.
LUCE DROVE THE HAWK
, headlights dim in fog, probing forty feet out and then fading into the grainy dark. Stubblefield hunched forward pale-faced with his clammy forehead almost on the dash, his bleeding hand clamped between his knees. He rocked in his seat, saying, Shit, shit, shit.
Stubblefield twisted and thumbed on the dome light with his right hand. He unwound the bloody wad of silver slip from his cut hand and held his wound to the light. Blood began running down the inside of his forearm and dripping off his elbow. Stubblefield tipped his head down and studied his bloody sign. On his black shirt it looked like a grease mark, and puddled on the upholstery it looked exactly like what it was. He switched the light right back off.
Luce said, You need stitches.
—I look like a damn autopsy victim.
—Your hand’s cut. We’ll get it fixed.
—I saw bones, he said. I thought they would be white. They’re sort of blue.
—Tendons, Luce said. They’re bluish.
—Bones, Stubblefield said.
—Move your fingers. Touch each one to your thumb.
Stubblefield did so, and everything worked right. The bleeding, though, still bad.
—Wrap it back tight, Luce said. You need a bunch of stitches.
—No shit. But not the hospital.
—That’s where I’m headed.
—No, Stubblefield said.
Luce turned and looked a quick question at him.
—Because if we do, Lit will hear of it. Your father keeps up with everything.
—And then, so what? Luce said.
—And then that could be bad. What I heard, he and that man are tight. Buys uppers from him. And you heard what he said back there. I’m not leaving you that exposed.
—Shit, shit, shit.
LUCE PARKED WITH
the headlights aimed through fog at Maddie’s house, amid its tangle of wildflowers. Half-dead brown stems and stalks and canes arcing toward winter, the tangle cut through by a narrow footpath to the steps. No light showing on the porch or in the windows.
Not wanting to startle Maddie, with her shotgun hanging over the door on two hooks cut from forks of tree limbs, Luce said, Maybe we’ll sit here a minute with the lights on and then toot the horn.
Stubblefield reached with his good hand to the horn ring and held it down for a long blast.
A yellow light came on in the window to the right of the front door. Almost at the same time, Maddie opened the door and stepped out into the headlights. She had on a pale nightgown that fell to her bare feet. Her white hair fanned across her shoulders, and she held the shotgun at an angle slightly below parallel.
Luce opened her door and got out and shouted, Maddie, it’s Luce. We need your help.
Maddie dropped the twin muzzles to rest on the porch boards and visored her free hand against the light. She said, Shut out those goddamn lights and come on in the house. You’ll wake up the kids.
The fire had burned to a bed of hot coals, and Maddie threw on a dry split of red oak and it blazed up in seconds. Stubblefield sat at the dinner table at the end of the kitchen, and Maddie switched on the light and cleaned his hand with peroxide and looked at the cut.
She said, You’ll live. It’s not all that damn deep. I guess there’s a reason this couldn’t have been done at the hospital?
—Yeah, Stubblefield said. One day when it gets to be a good story, I’ll tell it to you.
Maddie struck a match and burned a needle. Licked the end of black thread to sharpen it and aimed through the needle’s eye dead steady and drew about a foot from the spool and scissored it and paired the wet end with the dry and knotted them. She pressed the back of Stubblefield’s hand firm against the table and told him to keep it still. The cut gapped and didn’t want to go back together, and Maddie’s pressing and yanking on his hand caused Stubblefield to make a noise like a high-pitched cough.
Maddie said, Need a stick to gnaw on, like in cowboy movies?
Stubblefield said, Go on.
Maddie made the best sense she could of the bleeding slash and sewed a baker’s dozen of tight quick stitches, angling from the pad of meat at the base of the thumb toward the little finger. Then she slowly tilted the brown bottle and poured the remainder of the peroxide over his hand. Pink foam rose along the puckered line of stitches, and the blood on the tabletop washed into the woodgrain.